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Ornicept's Technology is For the Birds

Ornicept team
Ornicept team

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Wind energy is one of the most promising green energy technologies, but it comes with a catch: turbines can kill migrating birds if they are placed in the birds' flight path, leading to endangerment of some species. Avoiding that while finding the best location for the turbines is a challenge for wind energy firms. A new tenant in the Ann Arbor SPARK Central Business Incubator might just have devised an efficient, high-tech solution.

Ornicept uses cameras to observe bird activity in a potential turbine site, then sends the images to computers which use object recognition software to identify what birds are in the area. Beyond the energy sector, the technology has the potential to prevent striking birds at airports, military bases and more, says Ornicept founder Russell Conard, who serves as the company's chief technology officer and head of research. Forbes magazine certainly sees the potential. Conard was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" Energy list for 2013.

Not only is Ornicept's product interesting, its origin story is as well. Conard is an avid birder, and he and his wife have crisscrossed the country to look for birds. While doing graduate work at the Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing, he combined his love for birds and technological knowledge and began researching the concept that would eventually become Ornicept. "If I had known how difficult it was going to be I may not have ever tried it," he says. He began working with biologists at IU on recognizing bird species through computer vision, and they immediately saw the potential to commercialize the idea, a notion reinforced when it was met with enthusiasm at wind energy conferences.

Bird surveys are typically done by a biologist with a notebook, sitting in a chair at the site and counting the birds they see fly by. This approach is less expensive, but more time-consuming and fraught with human error. The other alternative to Ornicept's idea is an avian radar system, which can cost anywhere from $500,000 to $800,000 new, and can't distinguish between a large dragonfly and a small bird, or an eagle and a small plane, which makes it quite costly for species-specific monitoring. With Ornicept's object recognition technology, their computers can reliably identify species of birds, which aids in protecting threatened species in environmentally sensitive areas.

After deciding to commercialize the idea, Conard sought help from the student business incubator at IU, where he met Ornicept CEO Justin Otani. Otani was finishing his studies for a joint law and MBA degree while working in the university's technology transfer office, and clicked well with Conard. Ornicept provided him the chance to meld a personal interest with a professional one, he says. "I liked the technology, and I was graduating and looking for interesting work," he says. "The outdoors and the environment were always an interest of mine – my dad was a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service, and with Ornicept I could combine that interest with what I was learning in school."

The company was one of four winners of the Building Enterprises in Science and Technology contest at IU, which gave them funding to pursue a larger round of financing. At the same time, they were deciding where to site the company. Conard's wife had been accepted to the School of Natural Resources at the University of Michigan, so they were considering splitting offices, with Otani in Indiana and Conard in Ann Arbor. While considering that issue, they attended the American Wind Energy Association conference in Atlanta this past fall and found out about SPARK at the Pure Michigan booth. They were impressed with what SPARK had to offer, so they moved the entire company here.

Before they were even physically in Michigan – they were virtual incubator tenants but still working out of Conard's basement in Indiana – staff at SPARK alerted them to the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition, which provides capital to promising early stage companies. They won the 2012 competition's alternative energy category. "It was a great experience, not just for the benefit of winning our category, but it was a great networking opportunity to get tapped in with the local community," Otani says. And of course, the $25,000 prize money didn't hurt. "We're an early-stage company and that kind of money is hard to obtain without those connections."

They recently hired their first employee, Guanya Zhou, an electrical engineering graduate from U-M, and are looking to add more this year. "I think 2013 is going to be a huge year for us. We're hiring more staff and doing our first large-scale field testing, and will acquire our first customers," says Conard. "I can't wait to see what's happening this year.  In just a few years from now I think we'll look back at this time and see it as being exciting and important in our growth."

They've found SPARK to be a good fit, and have taken full advantage of the services it offers – everything from the easy availability of whiteboards and conference rooms to the mentorship and learning opportunities. "SPARK has made itself a lighting rod for thinkers," Conard says. "They have different speakers and events multiple times a week where they bring in some of the brightest minds in the area to talk about marketing, law – all sorts of topics important to startups. We wouldn't have that if we had our own office space."

Otani points to the guidance available to them at SPARK as key to Ornicept's success. "The two biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make is that they don't know what they don't know, and they think they can do it all themselves," Otani says. "SPARK has been great in helping us avoid those two, which has led to a lot of what we have been able to accomplish."

Photos by Doug Coombe
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